Whitney, Marvin, Jimi and the best Star-Spangled Banner performances ever

Whitney, Marvin, Jimi and the best Star-Spangled Banner performances ever

Whitney Houston’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner turns 30.
Whitney Houston’s rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner turns 30.
Image: Getty Images

Whitney Houston gave her gift to America 30 years ago — one of the most stirring renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner ever recorded.

The setting was Super Bowl XXV, and it was a different time. America wasn’t engaged in endless foreign wars, and a whole generation had grown up with no memories of Vietnam. The Persian Gulf War had started just 10 days earlier. Both of the teams involved, the Buffalo Bills and the New York Giants, wore red, white, and blue colors.

It was a decidedly nontraditional arrangement, as conductor John Clayton gave it a gospel feel. Although it was prerecorded, Houston’s incredible voice and powerful charisma were in full force.

”They say the National Anthem is one of the hardest songs to sing,” Houston said after the Super Bowl, “but it gets a whole lot easier to use those notes when you think about the many men and women risking their lives in the Middle East.”

Radio stations became inundated with requests to play her version. It was released as a single and raised more than $500,000 for the families of soldiers in the war. Ten years later, Houston would re-release it after the 9/11 terror attacks, donating the funds to firefighters and police officers.

Here are our other picks for the best renditions of the national anthem.

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Jose Feliciano, 1968 World Series

Jose Feliciano, 1968 World Series

Jose Feliciano reimagined the Star-Spangled Banner when he performed it before Game 5 of the 1968 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers at Tiger Stadium. It was a soulful, mournful rendition, and quite beautiful. Born blind, the Puerto Rican singer performed in sunglasses with an acoustic guitar. But America wasn’t ready for a Latin singer to take liberties with its decidedly Anglo national anthem, and his career was nearly ruined because of it as radio stations stopped playing his music.

“That was a tough road to cross,” Feliciano told Deadspin’s Eric Barrow back in 2018, the 50th anniversary of his performance. “When people don’t hear you on the radio they think ‘maybe he retired.’ It hurt me for a while...When I did it I never thought it would cause all the commotion it did.

“I didn’t mean for it to cause such a furor, but I was the first guy to ever do the national anthem with a guitar,” said Feliciano. “Everyone else had the big brass band. Nowadays it’s tracks that they sing to, but in my day, we had no tracks. And I was the only orchestra that I knew that was the best orchestra and that was me and my guitar.

“I didn’t change the melody or anything like that. I just didn’t sing it in the plain way that it was written,” said Feliciano. “I put myself into it. My whole soul. Who I am. You know it’s a funny thing because when I did it, I didn’t realize some of the things I’m telling you now. I’ve been listening to it so much. That I finally realized is all I did really was try to put some feeling into an otherwise cold anthem. Really? For a country like ours? Come on, you’ve got to have the best. So I gave it my best.”

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Gaga, ooh-la-la: 2021 Presidential Inauguration

Gaga, ooh-la-la: 2021 Presidential Inauguration

Lady Gaga, rocking a Schiaparelli Couture that looked like it came straight from Cinna in The Hunger Games, performed a unique, bold version of the anthem just last week. The magnetic pop star turned the socially distanced crowd of patriots and government officials into Little Monsters. Gaga also performed the anthem at Super Bowl LI.

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Mo Cheeks, guardian angel

Mo Cheeks, guardian angel

On April 25, 2003, Mo Cheeks, as head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, sang the National Anthem in an unforgettable manner. As 13-year-old Natalie Gilbert struggled with the words to the notoriously difficult-to-remember song, Cheeks walked over to her, put his arm around her and sang with her as she recovered her composure.

“It was like a guardian angel had come and put his arm around my shoulder and helped me get through one of the most difficult experiences I’ve ever had,” said Gilbert.

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Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock

One of the most legendary performances at Woodstock was guitar god Jimi Hendrix. While most of the crowd of 500,000 was long gone after a weekend of music, mud and love, Hendrix performed The Star-Spangled Banner as a guitar solo, at the height of his powers. It was pure Hendrix: fire, bombast, blues and screaming feedback. Dick Cavett said of the performance: “Since we somehow acquired the most dismal, virtually unsingable dirge of a National Anthem of any known nation, we should decorate Hendrix for turning it into music.”

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Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game 

Marvin Gaye at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game 

While Whitney’s Houston may be the most famous rendition, Marvin Gaye’s version is the most soulful, and definitely the Blackest. I mean, the dude had on sunglasses inside of an arena.

Only Marvin Gaye could infuse The Star-Spangled Banner with a smooth Motown swagger. Performing at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game at the L.A. Forum, Gaye blew away the crowd of basketball legends, VIPs and fans.

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” Magic Johnson said. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the National Anthem.”

With Carron J. Phillips

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